In my South Pacific sailing adventure there was no getting away from it: hundreds of miles from anywhere and anyone, we were in the middle of a big blue ocean, and for three weeks that ocean was our world.
Crewing on a boat from Galapagos to Tahiti with three strangers, this was an adventure in learning to live at sea, a reminder of routine, and a privileged opportunity to totally remove myself from civilisation and see what long distance sailing was really about.
And, I realised, it was largely about being alone.
The first sense of aloneness was that of looking out at a vast ocean brimming with blue-grey choppy waves and not much else. After a tuna catch on the second day, the only sea life that seemed to still show itself to us were flying fish and little, squidgy squid. Initially both littered the deck, but even they started to desert us as we sailed on, passing the 1,000nm and then the 2,000nm mark. Dolphins made a brief appearance, playing and ducking and diving at the bow of the boat, and a still-day swim and snorkel allowed me to see salps and sunlight streaking the clear, 4,000m deep water. But human life? Nothing to be seen.
For most of the voyage, all we had were 360° views of water leading to a drop-off some 8nm away. Sometimes choppy, sometimes eerily still, there were no indications that anything else existed out there. Instead of being scary, it was strangely calming. The heavens reached horizon to horizon over the top of our world, day times presenting Simpson skyscapes and night times a brilliant blanket of dense starriness and Venus brightly guiding us on to the West.
For twenty days, I didn’t see another boat, another sign of human life. My world was me and these three new friends. Supposedly, whilst I slept, we passed by a Japanese sailing ship that the others made contact with, but who knows that they didn’t dream it up after weeks with no interaction. No, unfair, I did later hear some chatter on the radio, an unfamiliar language. I scanned the horizon. Where were they? But nothing.
There was also the mental and emotional test of being disconnected from the ones we love. My skipper had a satellite phone from which he sent regular updates, but beyond that, no one knew where we were or how we were all really doing. Surprisingly, this wasn’t too much of a problem. Despite only meeting my crew a day before I boarded the boat, we all got on fine; good chats, interesting views, plenty of learning points. Maybe I’ve just got so used now to not being surrounded by my usual friends and family that I easily adapt?
It was only after two weeks that I realised if something big went wrong, we were fully alone. Sure, the EPIRB would fire off and let the main guys around the world know that we were having problems, but the best that they could do would be to find a boat close to us, which could be hundreds of miles, and direct it to our rescue. ‘What if my appendix ruptured?’ asked Joel. ‘Surely they’d send a helicopter or a rescue plane?’ I asked. ‘The best they could probably do would be to get us to a bigger ship with better first aid provisions’, said the captain. Death at sea, then, was a possibility. ‘I give you guys permission to operate on me’, said Joel.
So here we were, four strangers sailing in the middle of a big blue ocean, and for three weeks that ocean was our world.
And, at least in terms of humankind, we were very much alone in that world.